Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why IdeaStorm and Salesforce Ideas are fads

OK, perhaps you can say I'm biased. I am, after all, in the business of helping firms create sustainable innovation programs, and we do build innovation software. But I think I can raise a few legitimate points about the current wave of excitement about the intermingling of social networking tools and innovation software. The two best examples of these are IdeaStorm and SalesForce Ideas, although there are a number of other content management and collaboration tools offering to serve as innovation tools.

First, let's clarify our language. Having a bunch of people submit ideas to a portal is NOT innovation. That is simply a sounding off process, mostly about the problems that exist with current products or perhaps some incremental innovation ideas about how to change the existing products. While interesting and valuable, that's not innovation. Second, innovation is about being able to take ideas from any source and convert them into new products and services that add value. In the words of one of the IdeaStorm personnel:

I love seeing companies embrace this method of listening and engaging the customers. One caution I would send out to anyone setting up a larger scale idea site is the need for a management back end. You can only imagine trying to sort through and actually work on the almost 9K ideas we have so far without a method for tracking status, assigning owners, etc. Do you know if these other vendors offer the idea management tools as well?

So, while many of these applications can accept ideas from anyone, anywhere, they don't have the facility to manage, distribute, evaluate and process the ideas so that they can become new products and services. If the folks at Dell are seeking idea management tools after a "successful" implementation of their IdeaStorm application, what does that say about the downstream processes and capabilities? After all, anyone who works in innovation will tell you that idea generation is easy - managing, evaluating and maturing ideas is the hard part. We think this is where the actual value in innovation resides - having a process and team that can consistently manage ideas and convert them into new products and services.

Next quibble? The reliance on "wisdom of crowds". The social networking and collaboration engines will tell you in no uncertain terms that this is the best way to identify good ideas. That statement is probably true for problems with existing products and exceptionally near term incremental product changes. What the advocates of "wisdom of crowds" models don't tell you is that the crowd can be easily swayed. Look no further than the election for president. In January Hillary Clinton had a huge popular lead based on prediction markets and polling. If we'd made a decision then based on the "wisdom of crowds" we'd have president Hillary already. Wisdom of crowds and prediction markets fail repeatedly when new information is introduced and when new products, services or people are introduced. Other evaluation and consideration means are necessary when your firm is going to place a big bet on a breakthrough or disruptive idea. While your firm may want feedback on existing products and services, will you outsource your new product and service development to the market? If you do that, how do you differentiate from your competitors who are also listening to the same people?

Another concern about broadbased open innovation? Intellectual property ownership. If an idea is submitted by a consumer or customer, who owns the idea? Has the person submitting the idea done any research to investigate if that idea actually belongs to someone else already? What if the submitter claims rights to the idea or wants royalties? This is not to say that firms shouldn't acquire ideas from external agents, just that there are other, better ways to do this, especially as the ideas become more disruptive or have a higher market potential.

These open suggestion models are interesting but will ultimately run into many of the same problems that doomed the physical suggestion box:

  1. Too many ideas are submitted for the teams to manage
  2. There is no downstream process for managing ideas successfully
  3. The ideas address too many different challenges and issues to manage effectively
  4. The ideas usually don't address issues the management team considers strategic
  5. There are concerns about the ownership and legality of the ideas
Innovation is more than simply receiving ideas from a broad array of people. Implemented effectively, innovation is a consistent process of gathering ideas, evaluating them, piloting or prototyping ideas and then creating new products, services and business models. If all your ideas come from crowds, then you are following the crowds, not leading them to new markets or new products. As Henry Ford said, "if I had listened to my customers I would have made a faster horse".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:45 AM


Anonymous Brett Rogers said...

Where I think the social networking rubber meets the innovation road is in face-to-face discussions with the intended audience once you get beyond the initiation phase. I'm not sure that tech helps here.

I completely agree: customers would want faster horses. While very few customers have disruptive innovations to offer, most wouldn't.

If you put the proposed innovation in front of them and learn their objections, what triggers the a-ha's, and how they envision their use of it, you emerge smarter and more ready to implement. The nuance of nonverbal is important in this process. Can tech help with that? Perhaps not...

8:30 AM  
Blogger Paul Williams, PMP said...


You are spot on with this post!

Anyone else listening?!?!

That's right, even a guy who DEVELOPS idea/innovation management software, for goodness sake, will tell you that even the best designed software cannot do the vast majority of the work that is innovation management. It is simply a tool to help make the job a bit easier.

There is still no software around that can make common sense decisions, design and manage effective processes, change organization culture, champion ideas or nurture would-be innovators...and there never will be.

Thanks Jeffrey!

P.S. Didn't know if you saw it but I reviewed the book on my blog...http://blog.thinkforachange.com/2008/03/13/book-review--make-us-more-innovative-by-jeffrey-phillips.aspx

9:31 AM  
Blogger Dan Keldsen said...

Jeffrey - interesting meme that's been spreading around recently. Blogged on this very thing just a week ago (see Innovation - There's More to it than Crowds ) - we even end our commentary exactly the same, with a quote from Ford!

I don't think it's a fad however, it's just that (as usual) people see the fun and easy side of it, and get carried away, forgetting to do the real work of actually weeding out the good and bad ideas, trying them out through the product development process, and taking the do-able and useful ideas on out to the market (where they may STILL die a painful death).

The Intellectual Property concerns are real enough - which is why Innocentive and others are pretty cautious about their approach, and are more of a "partly open" innovation method that "wide open" innovation.

Interesting times though - I'm glad that more attention is being paid to innovation however. The challenge is to KEEP and FOCUS that attention to actually accomplish something.

Ideas are nothing, folks! Execute, or be executed...

7:26 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Great post, but I've seen that Henry Ford quote come up sooooo often and I hate it. From a consumer point of view, a car IS a faster horse!

6:51 AM  
Blogger Dawn_Lacallade said...

Jeff- Thanks for the thought provoking post. Sorry to post late, I was traveling this week. I would love to offer a couple of my thoughts on your points. First off, couldn’t agree more that a suggestion box is not innovation. You are absolutely right that the bulk of the items we receive are improvements to existing products and processes. We find that these suggestions also have huge value and are a key component of listening. Your second point is about the art of innovation management and how Ideastorm and other like communities cannot replace that. Again, I agree. We have found that Ideastorm is a very nice compliment to our existing innovation process. As to the questions about IP, please take a look at our terms of service to see how we handle it. Hope you consider the ideas platform as a compliment to existing innovation processes. Thanks, Dawn Lacallade

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Graham Horton said...


there is no such thing as "wisdom of the crowds". shakespeare proved that 400 years ago. the so-called "wisdom of crowds" is nothing more than the well-known million monkeys with typewriters experiment.

in my opinion, there is one good example of this type of open idea solicitation: innocentive.com (which is very different in scope and degree of specialisation from the sites you mention.)

what i find particularly annoying is the tendency to equate these open idea web portals with open innovation. there is even one which calls itself by that name (openinnovation.ch). as anyone who has actually studied open innovation knows, it is a much broader and subtler concept than just asking the world for ideas via a website.

best regards

Impulse für Innovation Blog

2:56 PM  
Anonymous oddpodz said...

This entry is spot on. One of the biggest frustrations that we face as marketers is the plethora of ideas and mandates that we receive to go out and get customer ideas.
Lots of ideas are junk. And, it is a fulltime job to collect and sort those ideas. Sometimes there are common themes in ideas, or things that can help lead to innovation, but all in all piles of ideas are just that.
We find that innovation comes from trial and error on our part and observations across different industries for trends and new ideas.

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anders Heidemann said...

Unlike everyone else i would lik to disagree with you.

Of course there are many things to be aware of when using a "wisdom of crowds" approach. However setting up an "ideastorm" platform is a great and relativly inexpensive way of getting (compared to traditional market research) information about customer needs and wants.

You are right that most of the time it will be ideas from and incremental perspective, but every once in a while radical ideas may emerge. The great thing about these platforms is that it is not just a suggestion box. The platform lets users discuss and rate ideas which allows only the best ideas to shine.

This also answers your dilemma about managing the 9k+ ideas on ideastorm. Having the rating system lets the best ideas rise to the top, and taking action on these ideas actually shows that you care.

There is so much value in using an online platform to activate your customers.

Of course you have to manage it with care, and not use it as your only source of innovation.

1:55 AM  
Anonymous buy kamagra said...

Well, to put across my opinion, I'm going to read the average of blogs with have the same issue.That is such simply a sounding off process, mostly about the problems that exist with current products and you know that.

10:39 AM  
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9:14 PM  
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